HELP! That's what we all really want

Schools that stay open for 10 hours a day? Tax-free nannies? Politicians think these are the things parents need, but are they right? Joanna Moorhead finds out from mums and dads
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Mothers have known it for decades; fathers feeling injustice hit on it a year or two ago; and now politicians have finally cottoned on to the fact that childcare is an issue that arouses great passion.

Mothers have known it for decades; fathers feeling injustice hit on it a year or two ago; and now politicians have finally cottoned on to the fact that childcare is an issue that arouses great passion.

The provision, economics and philosophy of childcare will dominate the agenda in the coming general election, it is predicted. So suddenly politicians love parents - particularly the undecided ones whose vote might be swayed by the promise of their life being made easier. Last week the political parties began to lay out their wares.

Labour's big idea, fleshed out in a speech to the charity Daycare Trust, is to provide wraparound care for primary school children by extending the opening hours at schools. Within five years, Mr Blair promised, every primary school will be open from 8am to 6pm - putting an end to the need for "latchkey kids" to return from school at 4pm and find their house empty, their parents at work.

Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has already said she hopes a third Labour term will deliver longer maternity leave, higher paternity pay and the extension of flexible working rights for parents. New legislation has already improved the situation in all three areas in recent years.

The Conservative leader Michael Howard weighed in last week with a bold programme proposing increased maternity pay (there have been hints this could be as much as £150 a week) and allowing child tax credit to be paid in cash, so parents can spend as they want on childcare. But his most far-reaching suggestion was that the Conservatives could eventually make childcare costs tax-deductible, a change working parents have long argued for.

There are no promises on this front, and it is clearly something that would furrow brows at the Treasury: but the Tories are at least promising to look into the idea of making it possible to pay for formal childcare out of pre-taxed income. Mr Howard's watchword was flexibility: what he's recognised, he says, is that parental needs change and that choices differ from family to family.

Key proposals being put forward by the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, include free nursery places for all two-year-olds, improvements to maternity pay and a move towards "wraparound" childcare similar to the Labour plan.

But last week was only the start: more announcements on childcare are promised soon. So, over the weeks ahead expect a lot more pictures of politicians sitting at child-sized tables talking to small people who cannot vote; what they will be hoping is that their message gets through to the large people at home, and that they will judge their new childcare policies not merely sensible, but vote-worthy.

Newborn: 'The Tories understand about the quality of life'

Matthew Flanagan, 32, a civil servant, lives in Sheffield with his partner Sian Rogers, 30, who is also a civil servant. Their son Alex is six months old.

Sian has had six months off since having Alex, and she goes back to work on Monday. I had a fortnight's paid paternity leave when he was born, and then I took another two weeks' holiday, but it was nothing like enough. Going back to work felt awful: I felt I was leaving all the hard work to Sian, and also I was missing out on so much of Alex's development.

I think radical changes to paternity rights are really needed now: there's been a huge shift in most families and more and more of us are genuinely sharing the care and bringing up of the children. Fathers should have more rights to be around in the early months and years of a child's life: it matters hugely.

I'm now taking a nine-week career break, which was easy to organise because I work in the public sector. But of course it's unpaid, and for many fathers it wouldn't be so easy to arrange. I'd never vote Conservative, but the ideas the Tories have put forward this week do seem more appealing than most of their views. You get a sense they understand the argument about quality of life, and Sian and I feel very strongly about not letting work dominate our life as a family.

The idea of more flexibility in childcare arrangements is a good one, because life will change for us over the coming years and our needs for Alex will change too. But improved paternity rights are the number one priority I'd say. Next time we have a baby, what I really hope is I can take three months off work; even if it was on half pay, it would make such a difference.

Infant: 'I really believe childcare should be tax-deductible'

Kate Eaton, 41, lives in New Eltham, south-east London. She and her husband Jonathan, 41, who are both librarians, have two children. William is five and Isabelle is one.

Both Jonathan and I have predictable work patterns, which is enormously helpful when it comes to organising childcare. William goes to a primary school near our home, and attends an after-school club there until we collect him after work. It offers an excellent quality of care, and we feel very fortunate. Isabelle is at a private nursery and we're very happy with it. So we're lucky, but the truth is that being a family with two full-time working parents is still a major struggle - and if it's a struggle for us, with all the advantages we've got, how much worse must it be for some families? We both feel we're on a total treadmill: housework has to take a back seat most of the time and we do our shopping online, but it's really hard to pack in things like meals together, which we feel are very important, and to get enough time to just enjoy being with our children.

The single thing I would like to see the Government do is to make childcare tax deductible. I'm really disappointed there's not been a major campaign on this. We're all aware that there are lots of things you can claim back tax for that are in reality a bit of a con, but for parents who work, childcare is a completely genuine expense, and it's only fair that the tax should be reimbursed.

Another welcome change would be an extended period of paid maternity leave. I went back to work four months after having William, and even though I was off for six months with Isabelle it was still a major wrench having to leave her. With your second child you know how much you're going to miss once you're back at work full time, and that cuts deep.

Toddler: 'Labour's plan to dump kids in school for 10 hours is shocking'

Jean Molloy, 38, is a lone parent with two children, Rosie, two, and Paddy, five. She works for a charity and lives in Kent.

At the moment I have an au pair who looks after Rosie at home while I'm working - also at home. It has worked really well up to now, but as far as I'm concerned the child calls the shots when it comes to childcare, and now she's two her needs are changing. Up to this point it has been good for her to be in the home setting, looked after by someone she's got to know well, who's living as part of our family. But as she gets a bit older I think she's going to need the stimulation of other children, and a nursery school will probably be more sensible.

Also, what I've discovered is that, while I can't get any help with the money I pay my au pair, I'd get around 70 per cent of the nursery school costs, as it's Ofsted inspected, under the child tax credit scheme.

All this makes me think the Tories are saying the right sort of things at the moment, with an emphasis on choice and flexibility. The Labour proposal to dump children in school for 10 hours a day is shocking; it simply doesn't consider the needs of the child. Some might be OK, but for others - those who don't like school, or who are being bullied there - it could be a nightmare. It's a bit like that mad feminist idea of the 1970s that what was needed was 24-hour, state-provided care. That simply ignored the child's place and also ignored the fact that we as parents want to spend time with our children. We want to be with them, not just to dump them and race off to work.

Primary: 'It seems sensible to keep them in one place'

Caroline Wright, 39, is an event fund-raiser. Her husband James, 42, is a property consultant. They have two sons: Alexander, eight, and Oliver, five. They live in south London.

When your children are tiny you think the childcare is difficult, but a few years on when they're at primary you realise actually it was easy then, and it's a lot more difficult now. I work three days a week and we've an au pair, but there are evenings when one of the boys finishes at 3.15pm and another at 4.30pm. And if it wasn't for the fact that James works at home I don't know how we'd manage it.

Oliver went to a fantastic nursery when he was two, and in a way that's the sort of care I can imagine coming out of the Labour idea of the extended school model; it seems very sensible to me to allow me to keep my children in the same place for longer time. It would be a lot more streamlined and simple than the bitty way life is at the moment. It doesn't sound like too much time in one place: the idea that they could do their homework in a supervised setting appeals a lot, and presumably they could have time to play football with their mates in the playground and that sort of thing.

We'd only need Alexander and Oliver to be there three days, but I don't think I'd be against them spending even five extended days at school as long as the activities were properly organised and managed. It would have made life a lot easier for us over the past year or so if we'd had that facility available. It's been a godsend to us that James works at home, because even though I'm working part time I think without the flexibility he's got we'd have found it impossibly tough.

Teenager: 'I'm not impressed by the idea of paying family members'

Cheryl Dummer, 37, has three children - Carly, 17, Daryl, 15, and Reuben, 12 - from a previous relationship. She is now married to John, 40, with whom she has a two-year-old son, James. She is a part-time emergency ambulance technician and a childminder; John is a paramedic. They live in Plymouth.

In some ways, teenagers need a parent around a lot more than tiny children do. With a small one you can find out what's happening in their life when you're not around; you can talk to the key worker or the childminder and fill in the gaps. But it's a lot harder with a teenager: it's much easier to lose touch with what they're up to, and then you're asking for trouble.

I've got myself a flexible working arrangement from the NHS, my employer, so I now work two 12-hour shifts each week. Last year I also became a registered childminder, so on days I'm not working as an ambulance technician I'm looking after other people's children alongside my own two-year-old. Being home-based on those days is vital as far as I'm concerned; it means I'm here when my older children come through the door in the evening. It's so important being there for them, available for a chat. It keeps you plugged into their lives.

One of the most important issues as far as I'm concerned is tax relief on childcare - and not just childcare for younger children, but right up to 16. I'm not particularly impressed with the Conservative idea of paying unregistered family members to be childcarers: the checks registered childminders like me go through are stringent and thorough and cover important aspects of home safety and accident prevention. Working in the ambulance service I know that most accidents happen at home: do we want pre-school children being looked after by grannies and aunts living in homes that have never been inspected for safety, and which may be the very opposite of child-proofed?